Debunking misconceptions about Oakland SOL

There's been so much attention on the proposal to consolidate North Oakland schools, but not much on the East Oakland schools. As it happens, I have a long relationship to one of those schools, Oakland's School of Language (SOL).

SOL is a middle school in deep East Oakland where students, both native English speakers and native Spanish speakers, learn in both English and Spanish. When it was founded in 2017, it was the first new OUSD school to open in over 10 years, during a period when many new charter schools opened all over Oakland.

I was there at the beginning - I organized a series of parent meetings, originally with the goal of supporting a new program at Roosevelt Middle School, but as often happens in parent organizing, the group had a mind of its own and went in a completely surprising direction.

Fast forward two years and the school is mostly students from deep East Oakland near where it is located in 70th off International. Parents are very engaged, thanks to organizing by Faith in Action East Bay where I have been a volunteer for many years.

Robotics Class

Because of its connection to Faith in Action East Bay (formerly OCO), there are some misconceptions that SOL has been treated better than other schools or that it is somehow 'privileged.' Nothing could be further from the truth. There are a handful of middle-class families of color at SOL, maybe 5% of the school at most, because it is overwhelmingly working-class families from the neighborhood. SOL has struggled to survive - it has been such a challenge to open a new program within the district, at a time when many new charters formed without the same challenges, but it was the commitment of staff and families to keeping the school in the district that kept them from going charter.

This week I am starting my third year of teaching a coding and robotics class at SOL after school - we use the Scratch programming language to make computer games, and teach mBots and Lego robots to have dance battles and complete obstacle courses. I love working with students, some of whom I have known since they were in kindergarten and others I just met for the first time.

The school has struggled to get the enrollment it needs because OUSD doesn't feed any elementary schools into its program, so families have to seek it out and it is not yet well known. At the same time, the school feels overcrowded because OUSD gave it an extremely small site (the former Rudsdale campus) so it barely has enough classrooms this year.

This is why the school needs to move to survive, so it can have space for a library, a computer room, sports, etc., not to mention additional classrooms. The current proposal is to merge with Frick Academy, an underenrolled school on a large campus about a mile away and with similar demographics (41% African-American, 52% Latino, compared to SOL which is 23% African-American, 70% Latino).

As with any merger, this can make sense if there is a common vision and good relationships between families and staff at the two schools. However, OUSD has rushed this process so neither of these are in place. SOL families and staff are anxious about the merger and are asking OUSD to co-locate the schools for a year at the Frick campus, before merging the schools the following year (2021), so that the merger process can be done successfully and thoughtfully. I have not had the opportunity to talk to Frick families and staff but my understanding is that they are also very anxious about how the merger will happen.

With middle school enrollment starting in December/January, it's important to resolve this soon, because families will not want to choose a school for their kids if there is a lot of uncertainty about it. SOL cannot continue another year at its current location so the Board needs to make a decision tonight.

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